She sits by herself in the seat next to the window, idly filing her nails, intermittently gazing out at the passing yellow lights, when she is alerted by a sudden burst of rock music.  Quick on the draw, she reaches into her bag and retrieves a flat object, about the size and shape of a chocolate bar, which she holds up to her ear. 

 

‘Stace, I’m on  a train, but tell me quickly what he was like?’ ……….  She giggles wickedly. ‘Well, I did warn you, didn’t I?’ ……. Stace, you didn’t!  I don’t believe you.’ …….  ‘But what if someone had come in?’ …….. She shrieks ‘God, how embarrassing.’….. 

 

Across the aisle, we sat silent, captive witnesses to a private drama.  Did she? Where? How?  Our prurient curiosity is countered by an irritation at the unwarranted intrusion.    

 

The mobile phone is the icon of our age. It may irritate when it suddenly goes off in public places but it keeps us in touch with family, friends and acquaintances at work, wherever they are, at any time of the day or night.  This not only maintains social networks and speeds up business, but our phone is an instant source of information, it stores and plays music and even takes pictures.  It is a technological miracle.    

 

But technology changes the way we are. Just look at how the internal combustion engine and the television have expanded not only our world, but also our bodies, converting us from a can do to a can’t do society,  and how advances in medicine have improved the quality of our lives while making us more dependant.  Every advantage has a compensatory drawback.  But these advances pale before recent developments in electronic communication. 

 

Personal computers, mobile phones, e-mail, text messaging have fundamentally altered the way we relate to each other, how we work, how we are entertained and how we perceive ourselves and are perceived by others.  Instant electronic communication has altered society so rapidly and in such fundamental ways that we have scarcely enough time to think.  But that’s the problem. There’s no need for us to think and work things out.  We can get all the information we need at the fickle flicker of a few fingers.  The speed of modern communication has so compromised need for thought and reflection that we are in danger of losing the knack. 

 

Communication between humans does not just impart information.  That is a relatively minor component.  Most interchange is emotional and over 90% of that is transmitted non-verbally.  We pick up vital cues about how a person is in themselves, how they feel about us, what might be going on in their lives and what they might be trying to cover up, by their posture, how they dress, their facial expression, the colour of their skin, the timbre and tone of their voice, even their smell.  When I was younger and making my first tentative discoveries of girls,  I would get feedback of whether I had gone too far in my negotiations by noting the colour of their ears. (This was of course rather difficult if they had long hair). 

 

It usually takes many minutes, if not hours, of emotional trading to convey, in face to face conversation, why we feel the way we do. People all too often get the wrong idea during a telephone conversation.  There is just not the time and every minute is charged – so we try to keep things simple.  But consider how impossible this can be in an email or text message. 

 

When communication was conducted at the walking pace of the local postman or even with the cadence of The Night Mail, people composed letters.  I still have a box of my father’s weekly letters to me, starting when I first went to University and continuing,  without a break, until just a few years before he died in 2007.  He had perfected the protocol and craft of letter writing to create masterpieces of Dickensian prose, rich in the metaphor and nuance of innuendo.  Written in a hand of constrained idiosyncracy, the words covering the page in neat parallel phrases, they were thoughtful expressions of his eccentric identity. 

 

Few people write like this any more.  Letter writing is a dying art.  It reached it apogee in the 19th century and has been declining ever since.  E-mails and text messages are the letters of the 21st century.  But this is communication for busy people, who have no time for reflection and modulation.  All too many emails come across cursory and terse.  Too many people despatch messages impulsively.e.  If they are annoyed, it comes straight out on the screen and is sent without a moments thought.  People say things in emails they wouldn’t dream of saying  face to face, for fear of reprisal.  The absence of the object removes the brakes on emotional expression.  It is rather like road rage, riots or fights between rival fans at football matches.  Because the object of one’s rage is not known, it is treated as absent, so an attack becomes permissible.  When caught and confronted with their actions, assailants often say, ‘If I had known him, I would never have acted in this way’.  So texting and emailing, like alcohol, can remove the brakes on aggressive behaviour. 

 

It can also remove boundaries on romantic and sexual behaviour.  The proliferation of chat rooms and internet dating sites can encourage frank disclosure and expose innocents  to exploitation.  Virtual relationships, long distance relationships conducted via email and text message facilitate secrecy.  Covert deals, clandestine love affairs are so much easier to conduct by email and text message, but the communication lacks the essential non-verbal signals that engender trust.  Facile, yet fulsome, expressions of desire and affection can be despatched and then deleted.  But when misunderstandings and problems arise, such communication is never the medium to sort them out. 

 

The complexity and detail of emotional communication is considerably attenuated over the telephone and all but abolished by emails or text messaging.  People do not often say what they mean, but they still expect to be understood – often through their non-verbal signals.  How is that possible when you cannot even see each other. 

 

 

Lacking emotional nuance or negotiation, instant electronic communication is polarised, dramatic, competitive, secretive, suspicious, impulsive, effusive in praise but quick to take offense, exhibiting idealisation and denigration by turns, like ‘prime ministers questions’. It is anti-social, not conducive to the tolerance, understanding, forgiveness and collaboration that are the foundations of social cohesion.  It is also divisive, leaving out the old, the challenged and the disenchanted.  People who exhibit this pattern of communication on a regular basis would be diagnosed by psychiatrists as having borderline personality disorder,  a psychiatric condition associated with instability of moods and difficulties in modulating behaviour and forming relationships.  Yet this is the type of behaviour that the majority of young people and many of their parents indulge in on a hourly basis.    

 

So what is the impact of such patterns of communication on our children?  Could the excitable exchanges and quick fire witticisms  encouraged by mobile phones and personal computers facilitate the development of  addictive and impulsive behaviours, typical of borderline personalities,  and lead to destabilisation of trusting relationships?    Are we already seeing outcome in the empty materialism, anonymous sex, violent crime, teenage pregnancy, and alcohol and drug abuse?.   

 

Such questions are impossible to answer.  The changes are so recent and the necessary research has not been carried out.  Nevertheless, we understand that the prolonged childhood project of socialisation requires self confidence and understanding and comes with the painful realisation that we can’t have it all our own way.  Living in society is about tolerance, understanding, collaboration,  negotiation, altruism – working for the community and not just for ourselves.  There are already too many signs that western societies are narcissistic, impulsive and thrill seeking.  The ways we communicate can’t make it better, but could well be making it worse. 

 

And if the chaos in society is being driven by a lack of meaning and the compensatory need for excitation, it would undoubtedly lead to greater social control. The chaos and greed in the banking system may well be a sign of a wider social chaos.  The Blairite  nanny state was just the start.  There are indications that we are about to enter another cycle of  authoritarianism.     

 

But it just takes a butterfly to flap its wings …..We can only hope that the girl by the window on the train visits Stacey soon and offers sensible advice on personal boundaries and safe sex. 

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